What a weekend for British sport; and it’s about to get a whole lot better. If anything can top the Murray/Lions euphoria, 22 men from England and Australia playing for a comedy, pint-sized urn can. With more thrills and spills than Michael Barrymore’s Christmas party, this series has already had more than its fair share of controversies – and a ball hasn’t even been bowled yet. Many so called ‘experts’ are predicting an easy England victory but this blog (always 100% accurate with its predictions) isn’t so sure.
On the face of it, the Australian cricket team is in absolute turmoil. They sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, two weeks ago; one of their batsmen (David Warner) punched an England player (Joe Root) in a nightclub and was banned from playing in the warm-up matches; and when they played India, earlier this year (whom England beat 2-1 just before Christmas) they got absolutely hammered 4-0. The Aussies also suspended four of their players for failing to do their homework on the India tour. So far, so good from an England perspective.
The reality is not necessarily so rosy. Australia have appointed ex-batsman Darren Lehmann as their new coach which is something of a masterstroke. Unlike the draconian Arthur, Lehmann is a people’s person from the old-school, someone who will encourage and galvanise the side and this makes them potentially very dangerous. Lehmann will install some stereotypical hard Aussie grit back into the team and make them very hard to beat. The tourists may not be as technically gifted as England but you can bet your bottom Australian dollar that Lehmann will extract every last drop of determination out of his side. The mental side of sport is too often ignored, but in this case it can and probably will make a big difference to the Australian side England will face on Wednesday and the side they faced in the Champions Trophy four weeks ago.
Australia have the luxury of the world’s best batsman, captain Michael Clarke, in their ranks Since the beginning of 2012 he has been a run machine, scoring four Test double-centuries (one of them was a triple century) in a single calendar year. Clarke’s back has been playing up a bit recently but if he’s fully fit, England will have a serious job on their hands shifting him. Supporting their captain will be Chris Rogers and Shane Watson. Rogers is very much a horses for courses selection who has excelled for years in English domestic cricket. Watson has oodles of talent but in 75 innings for the Baggy Greens, he only has two centuries to his name. At 32 it is now or never for the broad-chested all-rounder and Australia will need him to improve on his current record.
Much has been written about the vaunted England attack but there has been relatively little said about the Australian bowlers. Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc all have the armoury to excel in English conditions, and James Pattison and James Faulkner in particular look like very promising seamers. Starc could be the trump card for the Aussies. He is a handy lower-order batsman and crucially bowls left-arm fast. Another left-armer, New Zealand’s Trent Boult, caused serious problems for the England batting order earlier this year and Starc will try to exploit that weakness. Siddle also has had success in English conditions, taking 20 wickets in the 2009 series. His consistency, pace and aggression is bound to trouble the English batsmen this summer. The current weather could in fact negate their impact and may in fact play into England’s hands. The hosts are more experienced in these drier conditions. James Anderson is a master of reverse-swing and also bowls brilliant cutters when the ball is not doing much. The Australians are yet to prove they can bowl effectively in batsman-friendly conditions.
That is not to suggest that the Australian bowlers won’t get opportunities. I have felt for some time that England’s batting order is a little too brittle and recently they have failed to post the sort of imposing first innings totals that were commonplace between 2009 and 2011. England have two relative newcomers in the top six (Root and Jonny Bairstow) who will no doubt come in for some special treatment during the series. They Yorkshire pair have both had impressive starts to their test careers but nothing can prepare them for the intensity of series against the old enemy. The decision to open with Root is certainly a bold move – one that represents England’s faith and confidence in the 22 year-old. Both their performances could well be a deciding factor in the destination of the urn.
One area England do have a significant advantage is in the spin department. Since his début in 2008, Graeme Swann has risen to become one of, if not the best spin bowler in the world. The likeable Nottinghamshire man has the ability to bowl in all conditions be it in a containing capacity or as a wicket-taker. With all due respect to Australia’s Nathan Lyon, England’s top-6 are hardly going to be having nightmares about his off-spin. In a move that smacks of desperation, Australia have called up newly qualified native, Fawad Ahmed into their A squad who are also touring England this summer but he has barely played any first-class cricket, let alone test cricket. Even if he does get called up, I find it hard to believe that he will immediately become some sort of world-beater.
On paper, England have a far stronger team. Their batting is superior to Australia’s, the seamers and spinner are more experienced and England have a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman in Matt Prior. But cricket matches are rarely, if ever, won on paper. This Australian side is dangerous; they have absolutely nothing to lose. They have a new coach who will have boosted morale no end and if the key players perform, like Clarke, Shane Watson, Siddle and Starc, and England aren’t at their best, the Aussies have more than just a chance of victory. All this talk of England winning 5-0 is complete nonsense. It will be a lot closer than that. The series will be won during two or three key sessions. Whoever performs when it matters most will be lifting the little urn at the Oval in late August. I hope (and think) it will be England but you can unfortunately never discount the Aussies.